Overcoming imposter syndrome

70 percent of adults get imposter syndrome at least once in their lives. It causes stress and anxiety, crushing people and performance. Here are 8 things you can do to break free and do your best work.

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I was beach-combing with my dogs on Quadra Island when I got the weirdest phone call. It was a guy from Lowes headquarters in North Carolina, wanting to know if I was interested in applying for a new job they had. It turned out that someone I'd met briefly at a conference a few years earlier was developing an Assistant Vice-President position in Narrative Architecture and Experience Design. She remembered me and thought I might be a fit.

I was simultaneously shocked, flattered and terrified at the prospect of becoming an exec for a Fortune 50 company. Too curious to say no, I suddenly found myself flying back and forth for interviews, touring the area with a real estate agent and scrambling to learn everything I could about running one of the largest home improvement retail businesses in the world.

Amid all of that, I was hit with a massive case of imposter syndrome. I was just a tiny little consultant from a suburb in Canada. They could hire anyone they wanted from any agency in New York or LA. What the heck did they see in me?

Fortunately, things were happening so fast that I couldn't dwell on it too much. Eventually, I summoned the courage to ask the question, first to the HR person touring me around. It turned out they'd recognized that they needed to diversify their workforce and wanted to bring in creatives who could help shift their culture and strengthen innovation. "Okay", I thought. "I can do that". Then I found the nerve to ask the VP (my conference contact) to whom I'd report. "Why me?" "Simple," she said. "You know more about the semantics [meaning, power] of storytelling and narrative for business than anyone I've met."

I was blown away. I'd never seen myself that way and immediately felt about two feet taller. Unfortunately, the whole thing fell through shortly afterwards when she was transferred. But it was a profound learning experience about the power of our inner stories to hold us back and limit our impact.

Many of my coaching clients these days struggle with imposter syndrome and all the self-doubt and struggles it brings.

According to Psychology Today, "around 25 to 30 percent of high achievers may suffer from imposter syndrome. And around 70 percent of adults may experience impostorism at least once in their lifetime, research suggests."

The online coaching platform Betterup says that "imposter syndrome is a cognitive distortion. It causes people to doubt their skills and accomplishments. They doubt others’ high regard for them. They doubt their own history and track record."

This in turn can be debilitating, stopping us from pursuing opportunities, creating huge anxiety and mental health issues, often resulting in a self-fulfilling prophecy of burnout, breakdown or failure.

However, in its article Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome the Harvard Business Review also warns that there's a big difference between imposter syndrome and real discrimination. "For many women, feeling like an outsider isn’t an illusion — it’s the result of systemic bias and exclusion."

👉 Though there's no quick fix for what is often a lifelong affliction with the feelings of inadequacy caused by imposter syndrome, there are things we can all do to break its hold on us and step into our power.

  • Turn it into a strength. My experience at Lowes showed me that people see things in me that I can't see in myself. Discovering hidden expertise gave me confidence that balanced out my fears. It also inspired me to lean into what others saw in me, to give myself permission to be who I wanted to be.
  • Ask trusted colleagues for feedback. Getting positive feedback once triggered a positive loop, giving me the confidence to ask for more feedback, which gave me even more confidence. Every time I asked, it got easier.
  • Focus on yourself, not others. This can seem impossible when social media constantly shows us others seemingly doing more, better. But the truth is that nobody really cares what you do – they're too wrapped up in themselves to judge you. It can also be helpful to remember that everyone is on a vastly different journey than you. We all have a contribution to make. That will be different for every one of us – and essential to the success of the whole.
  • Teach others. Sharing your experiences and expertise is a powerful reminder of how much you already know and have achieved.
  • Celebrate your wins. This is a big one. So many of us are so focused on future outcomes that we don't make time to enjoy and acknowledge what we're doing well.
  • Talk to others. When you share your feelings of inadequacy with someone you trust, you may be surprised to discover that you're not alone. Lots of people feel like they're faking it until they make it. Plus, saying things out loud can offer immediate relief.
  • Stop waiting until things are perfect. Most of the time, you don't need to get another degree, finish another course, get a promotion or lose 10 pounds to achieve something that matters to you. Give yourself permission just to start. Action is the antidote to anxiety. You'll achieve goals sooner and learn new things along the way.
  • Stop judging yourself. Again, this can be tough for those with a history of self-doubt. The good news is that you don't have to do this alone. Apps and practices like mindfulness, meditation or Positive Intelligence can help. So can working with a coach 😉.

You have the potential to do great work to create a better future. You have everything you need right now to get started. You won't be perfect. And that's okay. No one is. The secret is to trust yourself and take the first step. It only gets easier after that.